What is higher education?

Firstly, we want you to try and push all of your pre-existing knowledge about university and higher education to the back of your mind. Due to a multitude of different factors including word of mouth, the media, and pre-existing attitudes, it is typical for adults in the UK to be pushed into a stereotypical way of thinking about higher education and university, and these views are often incorrect.

Traditionally, higher education only referred to university, and universities only saw the richest, brightest, and most academically-driven students study very academic subjects (such as Physics, History, Medicine, etc.), and these students would go onto a career directly related to their subject (Physicist, Historian, Doctor). This is the stereotypical thinking that we want parents and carers to move away from. Higher Education has changed and is constantly changing to fit the need of the wider community (both person focussed and career focussed) and, as a result, it is very different to the traditional university experiences.

Higher education (often referred to as HE) is now much more varied, and is accessible to everyone, no matter what their background, interests or future goals. ‘Higher education’ refers to any qualification at Level 4 or above. In the UK, there are over 400 different higher education institutions (not just universities), with approximately 90,000 different courses for students to choose from; from Medicine and Dentistry to Sport Psychology and Fashion Marketing, and everything in between. With this much choice, in both location, subject area, and the format of teaching, there really is something for everyone

Let’s take a look at the current education levels in England, outline in the table below:

Click on the accordion below to expand see where HE may fit into your child’s education journey and for some myth-busting.

An overview of school, FE, and HE qualifications

We’ve therefore created a list of definitions below as an overview of the range of qualifications available when child is in school, FE study and HE study:

SATs: (Statutory Assessment Tests):

These are formal exams in Maths, English, and sometimes Science, that students will take at the end of Key Stage 2 to measure the progress a child has made since Key Stage 1, and will help to show specific areas where a student may need extra support when they start at high school.

GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education):

GCSEs refers to the national curriculum that is taught to students in Years 10 and 11, and includes exams that students must take at the end of Key Stage 4, which will determine where they can progress to in their educational journey.

A levels:

Academic qualifications that are taught in a similar way to school. There are a broad range of subjects on offer and they can be taken in combination with other qualifications (e.g. BTECs).


BTECs are a practical/hands-on approach to learning and are assessed entirely by coursework. They can be taken by themselves, allowing an individual to specialise in one subject over two years, or they can be taken in conjunction with A-Levels.


Apprenticeships are designed to develop skills for a specific career by studying and working ‘on the job’. Apprentices will usually be in work for 30 hours per week, and at college/university/etc. studying for one day a week. They are paid at least national minimum wage.


A degree is a form of academic study that focuses on students doing independent study and research, alongside face-to-face teaching. It is typically studied full-time for 3 years.

HNC (Higher National Certificate):

HNCs are designed to teach practical skills for a specific career route. They take 1 year to complete and often have the option to study part time.

HND (Higher National Diploma):

HNDs are similar to HNCs, but will take 2 years to complete when studying full time.

Foundation Degree:

A foundation degree will combine academic study with workplace learning, and the courses are usually designed alongside employers. This qualification can be topped up to a full, Bachelor’s degree.

Higher/Degree Apprenticeships:

Similar to an apprenticeship, this qualification focuses on a particular job or profession, and allows students to have paid work, but students will be studying for a higher education qualification. The length will vary dependent on the type of apprenticeship. 

Higher education myth-busting

There’s a lot of myths about higher education. Take a look at our myth-busting list below where we address some of those myths!

Myth: ‘Higher education is only for people who are good at academic courses’

Fact: There are over 90,000 different courses for students to choose from in the UK. Courses can be practical, theoretical, creative, or a combination of all of them so you don’t have be someone who loves writing essays or doing lots of research to be able to go into HE.

Myth: ‘Higher education is only for really clever people’

Fact: ‘Clever’ is a very subjective word – people are clever and skilled in so many different ways. Higher education is accessible to everyone, with some courses aimed a students who achieve really good grades in exams and coursework, and some for people who learn and achieve their best when learning more practical knowledge and skills. Entry requirements will differ by the institution and the course, and therefore can be accessible to all. Typically, students will need 5 GCSEs at A*-C/9-4 grade to get into university or onto an apprenticeship. However, foundation courses, HNCs and HNDs, may allow students on with slightly lower grades.

Myth: ‘You have to get a job in the subject that you studied – this makes your subject choice even more important!’

Fact: Higher education is not just about the subject that your child chooses to study, but rather it’s about the transferable skills they learn while in HE which, in turn, will set them up to apply for their desired job. Over 80% of employers want employees that have a degree, but don’t specify what subject it needs to be in. This means it’s perfectly acceptable for students to not know what career they want after their degree. For more vocational courses (typically apprenticeships and some courses taught at FE colleges), these lead students onto a specific career. However, it’s always possible for them to change their mind.

Myth: ‘We cannot afford for my child to go to university’

Fact: There is financial support available for every student thinking of going into higher education; both to pay for their tuition fees and also to cover their cost of living whilst at university (whether living at home or at university). More information about this in Student finance and budgeting’.

Myth: ‘Students come out of university with heavy and debilitating debt’

Fact: Student loans are seen more as a graduate tax, in that students will only begin to pay back this money once they have finished university and are earning more than £26,575 per year*. At this point, they will only pay back 9% of the amount they earn over this threshold (working out about £8 a month). Student loans do not currently affect credit ratings or the ability to apply for a mortgage, and after 30 years, anything still owed is wiped. More information about this in (*Please note that these are the figures for 2020 and could change*).

Myth: ‘You have to move away from home to go to university’

Fact: Although living away from home can be a great way for students to get immersed into the student experience, there are other options for students at university including living at home, or living independently (but not with other students).


Myth: ‘There’s no point in going into higher education, you can earn just as much by working’

Fact: Alongside the fact that you get a degree, there are a wealth of benefits to be gained from going into higher education that you won’t get from working full-time. Furthermore, figures by the Department for Education show that on average, university graduates will earn £10,000 a year more than workers who don’t have a degree, therefore showing that there is a point to going into higher education.

Myth: ‘University is all about going out and getting drunk’

Fact: Universities and other HE providers encourage students to socialise and enjoy all aspects of student life through gigs, sport, leisure and student societies. For some students drinking alcohol will form part of their social lives. As drinking is an adult pass time and students are legally adults when they attend HE, that is a choice each student can make for themselves; but all HE providers provide alcohol free venues whether students can meet, hang out and make the most of student life, away from alcohol!

Don’t just take our word for it, take a look at this videos made by out current students:

Higher education options

A quick overview of the different ways in which you can study in HE. 

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